Advertising Strategy

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The tobacco industry spends large sums of money on advertising, sponsorship and promotion of its products. In 2016, tobacco companies in the United States (US) spent US$9.5 billion on advertising and promotional expenses, amounting to US$26 million each day.1

WHO: It’s about Increasing Tobacco Consumption

The world’s first global public health treaty, the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC), came into force in 2005 and identified tobacco advertising as one of the factors that “have contributed to the explosive increase in tobacco use”.2 Therefore, Article 13 of the WHO FCTC urges Parties to undertake “a comprehensive ban of all tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship” to help reduce tobacco consumption. In 2008 the Conference of the Parties adopted WHO guidelines for implementation of Article 13, which outlines best practice in meeting the obligations set out in this Article.

The Link Between Advertising and Tobacco Consumption

As far back as 1992, Dr. Clive Smee, then Chief Economic Adviser to the British Department of Health, published a comprehensive study of the link between advertising and tobacco consumption. He concluded: “The balance of evidence thus supports the conclusion that advertising does have a positive effect on consumption.”3 Reviewing the impact of advertising bans that had been introduced at the time, Smee further concluded: “In each case the banning of advertising was followed by a fall in smoking on a scale which cannot be reasonably attributed to other factors.”

Tobacco Advertising Ban: The Case of the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom is one of 181 Parties to the WHO FCTC and has virtually banned all tobacco advertising:4

  • Tobacco advertising on television and radio was first prohibited by the Broadcasting Acts of 1990 and 1996, and the European Union’s Audio-visual Media Services Directive.
  • The Tobacco Advertising & Promotion Act 2002 (TAPA) was enacted in November 2002, which banned print media and billboard tobacco advertising in February 2003, tobacco direct marketing in May 2003, sponsorship within UK in July 2003, with a gradual phase out of sponsorship of global events (such as Formula One motor racing) by July 2005.
  • In 2004, space limitations were placed on the amount of advertising allowed at Point of Sale (with maximum allowance of 21x15cm). Since 2012 it has been illegal in England, Wales & Northern Ireland (and 2013 in Scotland) to display tobacco products in large stores, which was extended to small stores across the UK in April 2015.
  • As part of the Health Act 2009, the sale of tobacco from vending machines became illegal in England since October 2011.
  • In May 2016, Plain Packaging legislation came into force in the UK, requiring the removal of all branding on tobacco packs.

Tobacco Industry: It’s about “Building Brand Loyalty”

The tobacco industry already knew about the causal link between tobacco advertising and consumption. In 1987, for example, the tobacco industry trade journal Tobacco International ran an article on cigarette consumption in Greece, stating that “the rise in cigarette consumption is basically due to advertising”. Philip Morris responded to the article by saying that “the tobacco industry’s position in advertising is that it may influence the choice of one brand over another but has no effect on consumption …I am sure the statement in question was merely an oversight, but in the current climate of attempts to ban tobacco advertising in nearly all our major markets, it is certainly not helpful if critics can quote a tobacco industry trade journal to support their claims.”5

A decade later, Gareth Davis, then Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Imperial Tobacco, while commenting on the proposed advertising ban in the UK said:
“Obviously I am very much against anything that tries to reduce consumption of a legal product that is used by adults.”6
Publicly, the tobacco industry has long argued that tobacco advertising is aimed at building brand loyalty, and not about trying to persuade people to smoke.7 This claim has been refuted by some within the advertising industry since the 1980s.

Emerson Foote, former Chairman of the Board of advertising agency McCann-Erickson, which handled US$20 million in tobacco account sales, was quoted in 1988 as saying that: “The cigarette industry has been artfully maintaining that cigarette advertising has nothing to do with total sales. This is complete and utter nonsense. I am always amused by the suggestion that advertising, a function that has been shown to increase consumption of virtually every other product, somehow miraculously fails to work for tobacco products.”8 Foote’s disapproval of tobacco advertising and handling tobacco company accounts led him to resign as chairman of McCann-Erickson in 1964.9

David Abbott, Chairman of advertising agency Abbott Mead Vickers, (also known for refusing to advertise tobacco products10), was quoted as saying: “I think arguments like shifting brands are just insulting in their shallowness. There is no other category where you can spend between £70 million and £100 million and not have an effect in protecting or increasing the market. I think advertising has certainly slowed down the rate of decline. It has certainly helped to introduce new smokers, be they women or be they in the Third World. The other thing about cigarette advertising, I do think it makes it more difficult for health education in that it makes the Government’s attitude more ambivalent.”1112

The Marketing Dilemma: “How Do You Sell Death?”

In a British TV-documentary that aired in 1988, Fritz Gahagan, a former marketing consultant for five tobacco companies, provided insight into the dilemma faced by the tobacco companies:

“The problem is how do you sell death? How do you sell a poison that kills 350,000 people per year, a thousand people a day? You do it with the great open spaces … the mountains, the open places, the lakes coming up to the shore, They do it with healthy young people. They do it with athletes. How could a whiff of a cigarette be of any harm in a situation like that? It couldn’t be – there’s too much fresh air, too much health – too much absolute exuding of youth and vitality – that’s the way they do it”.13

Due to implementation of WHO FCTC Article 13, advertising restrictions have become more widespread across the globe. Yet the industry has adapted and become more creative in how it advertises its products.14

Types of Advertising

Sports Sponsorship

With its wide, often global, reach and appeal to young people, sport has always been key to the advertising strategies of tobacco companies.15 In the 1980s sport was used as an “avenue” for direct advertising of tobacco products.16 A tobacco industry executive was then quoted as saying:

“We’re in the cigarette business. We’re not in the sports business. We use sports as an avenue for advertising our products …We can go into an area where we’re marketing an event, measure sales during the event and measure sales after the event, and see an increase in sales.”16

Despite the introduction of the WHO FCTC in 2005, sports sponsorship has remained an effective form of indirect advertising for the tobacco industry,17 particularly in terms of increasing the uptake of smoking among young people.15

Examples of sports sponsorship:

Product Innovation

The creation of new brands and brand variants, along with packaging innovations, are an important way for tobacco companies to communicate with customers, build brand loyalty and promote their products. Innovation can be used to undermine regulation, and mislead consumers into thinking products are less harmful.

Targeting Women and Girls

Women and girls are a growth market for the tobacco industry. While globally fewer women than men smoke in many countries the number of teenage girls who smoke is the same, or higher than, the number of boys.18 Consequently tobacco companies have adopted specific advertising tactics to target young women in their existing markets, and increasingly in low and middle-income countries.1920

Corporate Political Advertising on Plain Packaging

Tobacco companies have used advertising as a tactic to indirectly lobby the UK government against the introduction of plain packaging for tobacco products, through corporate advertisements placed in newspapers, online and even in a weekly political magazine delivered to Members of Parliament. Some of the adverts placed by Japan Tobacco International (JTI) were banned by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for being misleading.

Specific Advertising Campaigns

TobaccoTactics Resources

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  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Fast Facts and Fact Sheets: Tobacco Industry Marketing, last updated 4 May 2018, accessed November 2018
  2. World Health Organization, WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, Geneva 2005
  3. C. Smee, Effect of Tobacco Advertising on Tobacco Consumption: a discussion document reviewing the evidence, Economic and Operational Research Division, Department of Health, 1992
  4. Action on Smoking and Health, UK Tobacco Advertising and Promotion, February 2019, accessed March 2019
  5. Tobacco Journal International, 17 April & 24 July 1987
  6. B. Potter, Tobacco Chief to Fight Advert Ban, Daily Telegraph, 15 May 1997
  7. British American Tobacco, Marketing our products responsibly. Our International Marketing Principles, undated, accessed October 2017
  8. World Health Organization, Break the tobacco marketing net, World No Tobacco Day 2008: tobacco-free youth, accessed November 2018
  9. W. Saxon, Emerson Foote, 85, Who Headed Large Advertising Agencies, Dies, The New York Times, 8 July 1992, accessed November 2018
  10. David Abbott obituary, The Telegraph, 20 May 2014, accessed April 2017
  11. Action on Smoking and Health, Tobacco Explained. The truth about the tobacco industry…in its own words, adapted for World No Tobacco Day, undated, accessed November 2018
  12. E. Clark, Time to Smoke out Double Standards, Campaign, 6 May 1988, p44-45
  13. C. Tremayne, World in Action: The Secret of the Safer Cigarette. Documentary, Season 24 Episode 37, aired 4 July 1988
  14. The American Cancer Society, The Framework Convention Alliance, and The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, How do you Sell Death…, November 2008, accessed November 2018
  15. abNational Cancer Institute, Monograph 19, The Role of the Media in Promoting and Reducing Tobacco Use, NCI Tobacco Control Monograph series, US Department of Health and Human Services National Institutes of Health, 2008, accessed March 2019
  16. abJ. DePerel, Warning: Sports Stars May be Hazardous to Your Health, The Washington Monthly, September 1989, p34-49
  17. B. Grant-Braham, J. Britton, Motor racing tobacco company sponsorship, barcodes and alibi marketing, Tobacco Control, 2012; 21:529-535
  18. World Health Organization, 10 facts on gender and tobacco, WHO, 2010
  19. A.B. Gilmore, G. Fooks, J. Drope, et al., Exposing and addressing tobacco industry conduct in low-income and middle-income countries, The Lancet, 2015, 385(9992):1029-1043
  20. A.B. Gilmore, Big tobacco targets the young in poor countries with deadly consequences, The Guardian, 1 December 2015, accessed March 2019